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Cavs Enter Win-Now Mode With A Machine Of An Offense

In the end, with LeBron James in his prime and the Eastern Conference wide open, the Cleveland Cavaliers went with the sure thing rather than rolling the dice on building a team with LeBron and a bunch of under-22 players. Trading Andrew Wiggins, Anthony Bennett and a future No. 1 for Kevin Love not only dramatically improves the Cavs short-term prospects, it also accelerates the timetable for the rest of the team and puts them firmly in win-now mode.

After spending the first seven years of his career with a paucity of talent around him, LeBron’s charmed life continues, as he goes directly from a Big Three in Miami to a Big Three in Cleveland. While neither Love nor Kyrie Irving have ever made the playoffs, they have already combined to make five All-Star appearances and both are under the age of 26. The Cavs are now one of the favorites to win a title, although they still need to figure out the rest of their rotation.

On the offensive side of the ball, the biggest plus is the absurd amount of spacing they can put on the floor. Three-point shooting is the most important thing that players in LeBron’s supporting cast need to have and Cleveland has the winner of the three-point shoot-out in 2011 (James Jones), 2012 (Love) and 2013 (Kyrie). Instead of receiving the brunt of the defensive attention as the primary option on offense, Love and Kyrie will get a diet of open looks.

While they will have to adjust to having the ball in their hands less often, they should be able to make up for taking a fewer number of shots by increasing their overall efficiency. Last season, Kyrie averaged 17.5 field goal attempts and shot 43% while Love averaged 18.5 field goal attempts and shot 46%. In contrast, while playing next to LeBron in Miami, Dwyane Wade shot 54% on 14 field goal attempts and Chris Bosh shot 52% on 12 field goal attempts.

By the end of their fourth season together, the Heat’s Big Three had become a well-oiled machine, moving in unison and creating efficient looks at the basket on almost every possession. Here’s what should frighten the rest of the NBA - on paper, the offensive games of Love, Kyrie and LeBron fit better. Wade has never been a good three-point shooter while Bosh only added it to his game last season. Kyrie took five 3’s per game last season and Love was at 6.6.

The player in Cleveland who will have to make the biggest adjustment is Dion Waiters, as he goes from a second option to a guy who will struggle to get a consistent amount of shots on a nightly basis. Mario Chalmers, the fourth option in Miami, averaged only 7.7 field goal attempts a game, half of what Waiters averaged (14.3). If Waiters can’t improve as a decision-maker and a defensive player, he may end up coming off the bench and playing as a sixth man.

Upfront, Anderson Varejao should be a good complement to Love and LeBron with his ability to crash the glass and move without the ball. While he isn’t a great outside shooter, the amount of space that Cleveland can play it should make that a non-issue and he should make a killing rolling to the rim on the pick-and-roll. The question is whether he will make sense on the defensive side of the floor, as he’s never been a shot-blocker in his time in the NBA.

The defensive side of the ball is where the questions are and that’s where David Blatt will have to earn his paychecks. LeBron is the only player in their current starting five with much of a reputation as a defensive stopper and he took a step back in that department in the regular season, as he seemed to be conserving some of his energy and not going all-out on a nightly basis. With the personnel around him, he may not be able to do that in Cleveland. 

That’s why one of their most important additions might be Shawn Marion, as he can come off the bench and defend a number of different positions. While his defensive numbers began to slip last season in Dallas, he was being asked to carry the team on that side of the floor, too much of a burden for a guy in his 15th season in the NBA. As a 20-25 minute player with the Cavs, Marion could be invaluable as a guy who can plug up any holes that spring up on defense. 

Going forward, as Cleveland tries to build a roster around their new Big Three, the most important qualities they will need are guys who can spread the floor and defend their position. That’s the only way they will be able to compete with the San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder - teams who can put lineups on the floor without a weak link on either side of the ball. As is, come playoff time, Blatt will have to juggle offense and defense off each other.

If the Cavs can’t find a rim protector, which won’t be easy given the amount of money they have committed to LeBron, Kyrie and Love, they can’t afford to have too many holes on defense. While the combined length and athleticism of Wade, LeBron and Bosh allowed the Heat to play small and clean up a lot of mistakes, that won’t be an option in Cleveland. Kyrie has a 6’4 wingspan, Love has a 6’11 wingspan and neither is a plus athlete for their position at the NBA level.

One of the biggest reasons for the Heat’s ability to hit the ground running was that LeBron, Wade and Bosh were elite players on offense and defense, which gave them a tremendous amount of flexibility in terms of setting their line-ups and filling out the rest of their roster. LeBron is LeBron, but he will need help on both sides of the ball to win championships. How good can Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love be on defense? That’s what the Cavs ceiling will be.

LeBron Opens Up His Own Finishing School In Northeast Ohio

With LeBron James going home, the Cleveland Cavaliers' odds for a title are up to 9/2. It's an ambitious goal for next season, but they do have a stunning amount of talent. They could start a No. 1 overall pick at four positions - Kyrie Irving, Andrew Wiggins, LeBron and Anthony Bennett. Kyrie is 22, Bennett is 21 and Wiggins is 19. If they allow those three to grow next to LeBron, all they have to do is find a C. There's no rush - this could be the start of something special.

LeBron is not headed for a steep decline. At 6'9 260, he's one of the biggest and most skilled players in the league and he turns 30 in December. He can be a starter on an elite team for another decade - Karl Malone started on a team that went to the NBA Finals at 40. As long as LeBron stays healthy, the window is open. Instead of doing everything to maximize winning a championship over the next 2-3 seasons, they could try to win titles for the next decade.

If you were trying to win right away, the move would be to trade for Kevin Love. They could start with an offer of Bennett and Dion Waiters, but they would probably need to include Wiggins. The problem is that it would be hard to give up on a guy like Wiggins so early in his career. In 7-8 years, Wiggins will be the same age as Love as is now. When LeBron starts to enter his late 30's, Wiggins could conceivably be the guy he hands the reigns of the franchise too.

That’s what the end game could be for LeBron - not to bring one title to Cleveland, but to bring a franchise that could compete for titles well into the future. When LeBron watched the San Antonio Spurs dismantle the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals, he saw what to strive for. He grabbed the best players of his generation four years ago - this time around, he's trying to get the best players of the next generation. This is his chance to be on a franchise like the Spurs.

If he stayed in Miami, he would have constantly been in a race against time. He's already watched Wade decline in front of his eyes and Bosh is beginning the downswing of his career. The Heat didn't have a lot of young talent and not much cap space to add more. They would have been getting worse every year and LeBron couldn’t stem the tide alone. In Cleveland, the tide is reversed. As he gets older, all the young guys around him will be getting better.

There are questions about the other No. 1 overall picks, but they would all be so much better next to LeBron. The same can be said for Dion Waiters and Tristan Thompson - LeBron could get all these guys careers on the right track. To me, the idea should be as much size, athleticism and shooting ability around LeBron as possible, which means Wiggins, at 6'8 200 with a 7'0 wingspan, and Bennett, at 6'8 240 with a 7'1 wingspan, as the two guys next to him.

After the draft, Cavs GM David Griffin said he saw Wiggins as a big SG, where he has a dramatic size and athletic advantage over everyone he would face. The problem was that unless he was playing with a wing who was even bigger and more athletic than him, he would always get the opposing team's longest and most athletic perimeter defender anyway. Next to LeBron, that problem is solved. The potential of LeBron and Wiggins on the wings is absurd.

Waiters has the chance to be a very good player in this league, but he's a smaller SG who takes the ball out of Wiggins hands and push him down a spot in the line-up. Thompson, meanwhile, doesn't fit the way the NBA is going - he's an undersized power forward who can't protect the rim or shoot 3's. Waiters and Thompson would both be best suited for reserve roles, which means Cleveland could have a team with two No. 4 picks coming off the bench.

Bennett is another guy whose career could be transformed next to LeBron. As a combo forward, he was trapped between positions a bit, but that’s no big deal when you are playing with one of the most versatile defenders of all-time. He has lost a lot of weight, which was one of the main things holding him back in his disastrous rookie season. If he can shoot like he did at UNLV, he would be very overqualified in the role of Shane Battier or Rashard Lewis.

The main questions about Kyrie are his defense and distribution, but that’s no longer an issue. He can play the Mario Chalmers role, spotting up off the ball and living off the attention LeBron draws. To give a scorer that gifted so many open shots is almost unfair. One thing that made LeBron so deadly in Miami was his ability to get guys like Mike Miller rhythm 3's - an elite shooter is not going to miss often when can set his feet and get a good look at the basket.

The biggest concern is at center, the one position where they don't have a No. 1 overall pick. Anderson Varejao is a good player, but he doesn't give them a lot of size or rim protection, which could end up being their Achilles heel in the playoffs. With so many young guys next to LeBron, they will need a guy who can clean up mistakes. Whether it's dealing some combination of Waiters and Thompson or it's cap space in the next few years, they need to find a two-way center.

There are an awful lot of ifs between the Cavs and being a perennial title contender, but that's why LeBron is there. As he said in his open letter, he can make their young guys better. There wasn't anything he could teach Wade and Bosh - they were his peers. Kyrie, Wiggins, Bennett, Waiters, Thompson - these are guys who were in middle school and high school when he entered the NBA. LeBron could pay it forward in Cleveland and reap a tremendous reward.

In essence, he could run the best finishing school in the NBA, sacrificing the front end of his second stint with the Cavs to extend out the back. Tim Duncan is winning titles at 38 because he is playing with guys in their early 30's and 20's - you stay young by surrounding yourself with younger players. And if the Cavs become the Spurs, it's because LeBron was Duncan and Gregg Popovich in one person. That's what’s on the table for him in Cleveland.

The Human Element

Through five years of covering the NBA as a credentialed member of the media, numerous people have asked for my biggest take-away from the experience. My answer has always been the same: despite all the incredible feats we see on the court, spending time in locker rooms shows the human side of the players. These are people that can do things I could never dream of doing myself but they also have egos and insecurities, pride and obligations that loom large even in their surreal lives.

Four years ago, the joining of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh in Miami stood as the final signpost on the road from elite athletes having intense rivalries to a more interconnected and businesslike league. After The Decision in 2010, I attributed some of this to the rise of AAU basketball and the simple fact that current NBA players have spent so much more time playing both with and against elite talents across the country from a young age and forged friendships then and later with connections though agents and endorsements. The pride and animosity that loomed so large in the 80’s and 90’s lives largely in the rear view mirror.

Heck, we saw Ray Allen jump from the Celtics to his biggest rival’s team for the better opportunity and he may do it again soon. The best players in the sport have transitioned from supermen to businessmen to being a business, man, at the same time the league as a whole transitioned from family owned teams to major enterprises. Like it or not, this NBA should be around for a long, long time.

Amazingly enough, the owners' intense overreaction to what Miami accomplished in 2010 fueled this homecoming as well. By effectively eliminating extensions as a logical path for elite free agents, the 2011 Collective Bargaining Agreement ensured that LeBron James would test the market as an unrestricted free agent- this summer would look very different with the old CBA’s extension system. While Cleveland would have held intrigue anyway because of its place in LeBron’s heart, a streak of insanely good fortune peaking at the perfect time made it the right basketball decision as well. It took a miracle to get LeBron out of Cleveland and took a miracle to get him back. While I think LeBron would have looked seriously at the Cavs regardless of what happened in the draft, his hometown team winning the lottery and securing the No. 1 pick substantially narrowed the talent gap in the short and long terms. Whether the Cavs keep Wiggins or use him to acquire Kevin Love, the team added a difference-maker in a way that would not have been feasible from the No. 9 slot.

In case they needed even more luck, the Cavs also got help from Father Time and the CBA. Despite their great success the past four seasons, Miami had peaked because of the limitations put in place in the new CBA. Unless two or more of the Big Three took gargantuan paycuts, the best they could do in terms of additions were the mid-level each season and praying a flier or two worked out. The increased value of first round picks meant buying into the 20-30 range would be unlikely and the success rate of second rounders has been dubious even in strong drafts. Barring the unforeseen, the Heat would have been lucky to be a top five team in the league the next two years even if LeBron ages gracefully despite still being the favorites to make it out of the decrepit Eastern Conference. Even though Cleveland’s roster carries more unknowns and far less experience, they have a championship ceiling now and that was enough to turn the tide.

As much as the basketball part of the equation mattered, Cleveland had advantages that no other city could match. Even in the NBA, few players have ever repped a city and area harder than LeBron James. Even after the wake of emotional destruction after The Decision, he maintained a summer residence in Akron and a meaningful connection with the area. Northeast Ohio meant a great deal to LeBron and his inner circle. I got the feeling a long time ago that all Cleveland had to do was get close- my pessimism was always that even with Nick Gilbert the human good luck charm the Cavs could not stay out of their own way long enough to make it a fair fight. To the credit of David Griffin and the lottery gods, they did.

While wonderful tools like the Trade Checker and the NBA2K video games help us enjoy the Association in different and engaging ways, they also obscure the undeniable truth that basketball players are human beings with their own motivations and priorities. Pat Riley and the Heat did an excellent job on the aggregate bringing LeBron into the fold and adding enough quality pieces to put together an incredible four year run- no one should diminish the difficulty of making four straight NBA finals and repeating as champions. Despite all their talent and star power. Miami never suffered from the “Disease of More” their architect coined more than thirty-five years ago. They were just vanquished by good fortune like what brought The King to South Beach in the first place.

Sometimes the human element can just be too much to overcome.

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